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To Process or Not To Process? Let’s Discuss

Processing a RAW file.

Processing a RAW file can allow a photographer to bring out the full range of tones in an image.

Often when I’m looking at photos in forums online, or interacting with photographers in person, inevitably someone will proudly claim that the image in questions is “Straight out of the camera”. Almost without fail, this leads to a huge discussion as to the merits of post-processing images, with those on the side of straight-out-of-the-camera images acting as if those photographers who process their images are somehow in the wrong, or are being deceptive.

There are merits to both sides, to be sure, but what’s amazing is how staunchly both sides defend their positions. At times the discussion becomes more heated than “Mac versus PC” or “Canon versus Nikon”. Having been on both sides of the debate, due to the nature of the work I’ve done in the past, I can understand both sides. However, I can also say that both sides can be somewhat misguided in their arguments at times.

Processing? NO!

Unprocessed sports image

Photojournalists covering sports or other news are often advised not to process images, and some news agencies outright forbid it.

Those who oppose any post-processing sometimes argue that it is a crutch, that they don’t need post-production to fix their images, because they get it right in camera. That said, there are plenty of reasons why you might not want to process your images, purity of the image aside.

In the photojournalism world, image manipulation beyond dodging and burning, contrast, and color correction, is a big no-no. Every few months a story shows up in the photo industry news websites that tell the sad tale of another photojournalist who lost his job or a contest because he or she removed or added an element from an image. In the photojournalism arena, this is understandable. Your job is to tell the story visually, and removing or adding elements in an image changes that story. So in that case, it’s best to keep the manipulation to a minimum. Some news agencies have forbidden their photographers from using the RAW format at this point, to reduce the chances that the images have been drastically altered. The goal here is truth, and while the photographer has already added their spin to it by making important compositional and exposure decisions at the time of capture, that’s where it should end.

Editor’s note: long time National Geographic and Magnum photographer Steve McCurry is under fire for this very issue right now. What are your thoughts on that, is he in the wrong or is it a witch hunt? 

Event Photography

Event photographers who shoot thousands of images in the course of a few hours often choose not to process images due to the amount of time it takes.

Another time where processing images is probably not a great idea is when you are covering large events. For instance, in a past life, I owned a studio that specialized in covering youth sports events, such as soccer and baseball tournaments. On the average Saturday afternoon, it was quite common for me to capture several thousand images on my own, and I often had a team of three or more photographers working for me! Speed is the key at these events, so it’s important that the images be sellable to the participants and their parents as soon as they are shot. This means exposure, white balance, contrast, and saturation must all be good straight from the camera. As soon as a game ended, those images were loaded immediately onto our server to be previewed by customers and participants. There was no time to adjust that many images individually.

Finally, there are those who simply prefer not to do that much work on a computer with their images. The act of capture satisfies their creative urges, and they are happy with their images.  There is nothing wrong with that. Some might say that working in this manner ensures their exposures are correct in every way when the image is made, which is certainly an admirable way of practicing the art of photography. This philosophy of course, also allows you to go out and do more photography, and spend less time on a computer.

Those who choose not to process get their images correct in camera, because to them there is no post-processing option. It helps them be better photographers at the time of capture, because they must pay attention to the details of the exposure, check their histogram, adjust white balance, and apply the correct picture style.

Post-Processing is Part of the Photographic Process

Processed Landscape Image.

Landscape photographers process RAW files in order to pull as many tones as possible out of the image, preserving shadow and highlight detail.

Often, when I hear the words “I get it right in camera,” it often sounds to me like “I don’t know how to use Photoshop.” True or not, for those on the side of post-processing, the photographic process doesn’t end at the press of the shutter button, in the same way it didn’t end for those of us who once shot film, then ventured into the darkroom to develop film and make prints. Those who have never been in the darkroom will likely never understand exactly how much manipulation could be achieved in the darkroom, from color and contrast adjustments, dodging and burning, to masking and photo compositing.

The truth is, there has NEVER been such a  thing as a “straight out of the camera” image.

(With possibly the exception of slides, but they can still be altered in the printing stage.)

Even for those today, who choose to not use Photoshop or other image processing applications, the image is far from being straight out of the camera. You’re simply letting your camera do the processing for you. When you choose a picture style, you’re telling your camera how to handle color, contrast, tone, and sharpness. You can create your own styles as well, manipulating color and contrast in camera to your own liking. Simply because the image wasn’t touched on a computer doesn’t mean it wasn’t processed, or manipulated. Knowing all of this, doesn’t it sound foolish to say that an image straight from the camera hasn’t been processed?

Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Post-processing is not a crutch. If I look at an image on the back of my camera and say “I’ll fix it later”, then it’s already a bad image, and no amount of processing is going to correct it. I am a staunch proponent of shooting RAW, for many reasons. As an avid landscape photographer, I know full well that the camera can have problems handling a scene with a lot of dynamic range, such as a sunset. I use optical filters on my lens to help with that, but there are still times when the image out of the camera fails to capture the image I saw with my eyes.

Close attention to the histogram is essential, ensuring that I have all of the tones I need to work with, careful not to clip highlights and shadows. This is very similar to Ansel Adams’ zone system. I know where objects in my scene should register on the histogram, and I adjust my exposure to ensure that’s what I get when I open Photoshop. As Ansel Adams once said, “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” The same is true for color correction.

This side-by-side comparison shows what is possible when processing a RAW file. On the left is the image straight from the camera, using the Standard picture style. On the right, the same image processed in Adobe Camera RAW.

This side-by-side comparison shows what is possible when processing a RAW file. On the left is the image straight from the camera, using the Standard picture style. On the right, the same image processed in Adobe Camera RAW.

As a landscape photo artist, I do not consider myself a documentarian. While I’m not personally a fan of compositing images together to create the finished piece, I do believe that all darkroom tools are on the table. This starts with RAW processing, and continues into Photoshop, where I will use adjustment layers, filters, and masks to bring the most out of my image. My intent is to bring out what I felt when I was at the scene, capturing the image. Very rarely, for me, does a camera do that without a little help from me.

Adobe Camera RAW

This is the tool palette in Adobe Camera RAW. Each slider is a separate control over the image, and each tab across the top represents another set of controls, enabling you to get the most out of the image.

Finally, and this is my biggest reason for shooting RAW when it is feasible, is the purity of the data. If you are capturing JPEGs straight out of the camera, the camera has already decided to throw away a good portion of the data you’ve captured. JPEGs are 8-bit files, across three color channels. For each of the three color channels (RGB) the camera is converting your image, at the time of capture, to 256 shades of gray per color, leaving your image with 16.7 million total possible colors. In addition, the image is compressed, and redundant data is discarded. This compression is lossy compression, and every time you open and do anything to your image, such as removing a dust spot, and then save it again, you are throwing away more data. Eventually, artifacts will appear in the image, ruining it and making it unusable.

Today’s RAW files are 14-bit files, meaning each color channel contains 16,384 shades of gray. This means 4 trillion total colors are available in the image. Issues such as banding and artifacting, which can arise when using JPEGS, are nearly nonexistent issues when editing a RAW file. I’ve seen JPEG banding in portraits where the skin tones change, and I’ve seen it happen in landscape images where the sky transitions from a vibrant blue to a pale orange at sunset. It can happen to any image. So even if I plan to do nothing to my image but remove a dust spot, it’s worth starting with a RAW file that requires some processing. Even if you oppose post-processing, it’s quite easy to apply a picture style the same way the camera does, and export a JPEG.

Processed Portrait

Portrait photographers often choose to process images to allow them to create a feeling about their subject, in addition to allowing them to retouch the image, and make their subject look their best.

Conclusions

Honestly, there’s no right or wrong way to work with your images. After all, a photographer’s work is very personal to them, and everyone chooses to work in their own way. When I can, I prefer processing my images and getting the most from the file. When the situation calls for it, I will shoot JPEG, knowing full well I won’t be able to make adjustments later, so I make sure it’s right when I push the shutter button.

What do you prefer, and why? Do you process or not?


Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles this week that are Open for Discussion. We want to get the conversation going, hear your voice and opinions and talk about some possibly controversial topics in photography. Let’s get it started here – do you agree or disagree with the points above? Do you have any others to add? Give us your thoughts below, and watch for more discussion topics each day this week.

See all the recent discussion topics here:

Read more from our Post Production category

Rick Berk
Rick Berk

is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.